Neither Here Nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Eritrean and Ethiopian Diaspora in America

April 19, 2010

‘Habeshoch’ and ‘Niggaz’: Is anyone really allowed to say them?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Habesha Diaspora @ 10:31 am

Certain words have historically derogatory meanings. However, different cultures have re-invented these words which once degraded their people into words which represent them positively and the strength which carried them through a historically repressive time. Gay people can call each other ‘queer’, black people call each other N-bombs, and some of us East Africans call each other ‘Abesha’.

When I was on my journey to find “my self”, there was a time when I didn’t know many Ethiopians. I tried hard to identify with the Black American culture and even thought I got away with it until I was hanging out with some of my local Black friends. We were all in the car on the way to a performance where they would be rapping and I would be singing a couple of songs and reciting poems. Then, like an atomic bomb, I let the arsenal slip from my lips and instantly kill the conversation so there was just the bass-heavy beat looming in the air like a funeral procession song. I had said “Niggaz”.

“You can’t say that!” One of them proclaimed defiantly after a dramatic pause which made the air congeal into a thick amalgamation of tension and ambivalence. ‘Can’t I?’ I thought to myself. As though he read my thoughts, another one of my friends said, “Look, Liya. There will be no hippedy-hoppedy talk. Just be who you are.”

Who was I? Well, I am Black. And I am African. Yes, there is a local racism in America which ironically does not discriminate between a Black African, South American, Austrailian, Caribbean, or American. However, racism goes much further than that. There are social implications in our governmental system which target people of specific backgrounds, both intentionally and un-intentionally. Further, there are residual effects stemming from slavery in America which have not and will not disappear for quite some time. Because I come from a family who grew up with a completely different set of struggles, I have escaped most of these inherent prejudices which reach beyond the local-racism I encounter in America.

What am I talking about? An ignorant racist has called me a ‘nigger’ before. I call this local racism. Education, in my opinion, is the key weapon to fight ignorant racism. Further, education is a value which began in my family generations ago and has only snowballed.  Slaves in the U.S. were tortured, maimed or killed if they taught themselves to read. If a slave-child learned the alphabet, they were likely reprimanded instead of encouraged out of fear for their lives. So the value of education was eradicated with this method and has to, now, begin all over in a time when its benefit is not evident for this group of people due to various social and governmental phenomenon. Is it an utter surprise, then, that the Black American population in this country has a statistically lower % of its people in Universities and Colleges? How about the fact that people with culturally Black names in the States, like Ebony, for example, have a much lower chance at getting an interview for a job even with the exact same credentials as an Emily or Liya? So, while these jobs are being funneled to other people who will be able to pay for their children’s educations, Ebony has to find a way to make ends meet instead of saving for her child’s tuition. I do not carry these burdens. My ancestors were never called niggers. The use of this word by Black people in a social context is only accepted if that black person carries these ancestral burdens because they are the ones who strive to overcome them on a daily basis.

Instead, my ancestors were called Habesh. A derogatory term in Arabic which also refers to the color of our skin. Ethiopia even means Burned-Face People. But today, a lot of us East Africans wear this label loud and proud. The statement we want to make is, “The people you belittled actually ruled the Eastern world, are named seven times in the Bible, and fought off colonizers to keep their independence. The people you belittled have kept their ancient written language, culture from hundreds of thousands of years in history and posses the most prized religious relic, the Ark of the Covenant.” We call ourselves Abesha to really say, “In yo’ face!”.

However, this is a very personal choice. Not everyone has the same sentiment when they hear these words. Instead of trying to re-define a word which, honestly, will always carry some level of its original negativity, they would rather eradicate them from language altogether. I did not know the heavy background of the term Abesha or Habesha when I helped come up with the name of a book project which I am working on with my sister (www.habeshadiaspora.wordpress.com). Though I, personally, identify with it, I do not want to exclude anyone from this project which centers on inclusivity. Further, I have the deepest respect for all of my East African brothers and sisters and, for these reasons, my sister and I have decided to change the name of the book from “Neither Here nor There: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Habesha Diaspora” to “Let the Horn Sound: Perspectives on Identity by the Young Ethiopian and Eritrean Diaspora”.

Do you think this was the right decision?

Much love,

~Liya~

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7 Comments »

  1. I think you have made the right decision to change the title of your book project. In order to encourage others to participate and be receptive of your book project, it is important to not be offensive to anyone. However, I also beleive that it takes strong individuals to empower themselve by stripping words of negative connotations to promote unity among their culture. I like when you referred to calling yourself Abesha to really say “In yo face!”. That statement suggests that whoever believes that they have power over you no longer does.

    Comment by 007 — April 21, 2010 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for visiting and commenting 007
    Hope to hear from you more!

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — April 23, 2010 @ 8:32 am | Reply

  3. Check this out for more perspective: http://ethiopia.limbo13.com/index.php/habesha_or_the_h-word/

    Comment by mahlettryingtofigureitout — April 23, 2010 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  4. Hi Mahlet! I think one should feel sorry for the folks who swear or use derogatory terms on poor fellow humans. It doesn’t matter whether they use them consciously or sub-consciously, it has been with them for quite sometime — so I believe it torches them more then their targets. Pure consciousness is a golden thing to possess. Well, easy to say, it’s not always easy to feel free from certain things — in this case, from prejudice, me thinks.

    Comment by Tariku — April 24, 2010 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

  5. hey first of all, good job this article this is a very cruical discussion point for the young Ethiopians and/or black non American descendents who lives here in the US.

    The word ‘Nigger’ is mainly used in a black americans specially within the very young ones. Hip Hop culture using the word to dis and or in some way to prasie their aquitances in their very own style.

    As you have mentioned, you can not say Nigga or Nigger to Black Americans if you are not one of them and obviously we are not in many aspects. Regardless you were raised in that community or society your value and perhaps culture didn’t molded us in that way….

    Plus, one thing it might be interesting is to take the discussion one step forword and see it from differnet angle ….Nigger or Nigga can not be compared with Abesha or Habesh…. it makes sense more to compare it w words that are not encouraged to use these days in ethiopia like (“Shankila”, “Barya”, and even “Gala”, “Dorze” etc…)

    Comment by Danny — June 28, 2010 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  6. Great overtake on a subject that seems to be so subtle but so strong and intense at the same time! I think H/Abesha does not really mean much more than Eri/Ethio people! I bet more people dont know what it exactly means than the ones who do!

    Comment by Samson — July 27, 2010 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  7. Tariku – thanks for visiting again and the encouragement 🙂

    Danny – that’s a very good point. With my sister and I having grown up abroad and having very concervative parents who do not use any derogatory terms, we are not as familiar with the words you included (other than hearing them in passing). (Wow i feel kinda naive right now.) Would you be able to elaborate on your connection to these words (or would you be interested in writing a whole piece on our blog on this?)

    Samson – Exactly! Especially the young people growing up abroad are not connected to the history and weight of the term. You’d be surprised how many times we’ve been asked “what’s the big deal” when discussing the change in the book name. Would you be interested in writing a consice piece for this blog on “h/abesha meaning 101” as an explanation for the many who don’t know about this?

    Comment by Habesha Diaspora — August 19, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply


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